Lincoln Journal Star, JournalStar.com
BYLINE: ZACH PLUHACEK / Lincoln Journal Star
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Paper lawn bags filled with marijuana dry in a police property room on March 18, 2010. (ERIC GREGORY / Lincoln Journal Star)
Sgt. William Koepke, with the Lincoln/Lancaster County Narcotics Task Force, talks with members of the media about the marijuana and growing materials that are now consuming much of the space in a police property room. (ERIC GREGORY / Lincoln Journal Star)
More than two dozen yard waste bags filled with drying marijuana -- evidence of 11 recent raids on pot-growing houses in Lincoln -- are neatly organized in a nondescript warehouse in the city.
In at least as many black garbage sacks, piled next to the paper bags, are more of the plants seized in the raids as of Thursday afternoon -- more than 7,400 in all.
"It comes to a point where all you can do is laugh," says Pam Fittje, property manager for Lincoln police. "There's this rumor among the officers that we're out of (warehouse) space."
Since March 5, members of the Lincoln/Lancaster County Narcotics Task Force have served at least 15 search warrants at different addresses in the city, Sgt. Bill Koepke said Thursday.
Most of the evidence seized during those searches -- millions of dollars worth of marijuana, piles of heat lamps, plastic pots, jugs of fertilizer and ventilation ducts -- is stored in the warehouse.
It's all organized by address, with evidence from each growing operations taking up several wooden pallets.
Typically, drug evidence would be stored in the evidence room at police headquarters. The off-site warehouse is usually reserved for vehicles and large equipment.
But now, Fittje said, "this area has been taken over by the grow operation."
Koepke says prosecutors will decide how many of the plants need to be saved for evidence, and it's likely a good portion will.
That's meant some extra work for Fittje's team.
Usually, she said, the property unit would strip and dry the leaves from the plants. But in this case, the unit has been asked to preserve the plants themselves.
"That's what gets a little overwhelming," Fittje said. "We just have never had this much stuff."
Before March 5, police had busted 34 marijuana growing operations over the past decade, yielding 1,218 plants, according to Chief Tom Casady.
Police believe the 11 recent busts are connected, and the evidence from each house is similar to the others.
In his 18 years on the force, Koepke said, this is the largest operation he's seen.
"The hoods are the same, the lights are the same -- but I don't know how much diversity you can have in this area," Koepke said.
He also said the plants are believed to be of fairly high quality, but laboratories do not typically test for levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its effect.
Investigators don't think the grow operation was limited to the number of plants officers seized.
Koepke said it's hard to tell how much pot is involved in the suspected drug ring, which has resulted in at least six arrests, with charged filed against five people.
"Quite a bit of marijuana," Koepke said.
Many of the plants police have seized -- those rotting in garbage bags in the warehouse -- will be destroyed.
"We're going to be burning them real soon," Fittje said.
Other items seized in the search warrants -- including stacks of plastic pots used to grow the plants -- will simply be thrown out.
Those present no danger to the public, Koepke said, holding one of the pots.
"No one's going to be able to lick it and get high."
Reach Zach Pluhacek at 473-7234 or
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